The city as collective intelligence

Geoff Mulgan at Social Innovation Exchange: “As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges….

We all roughly know how our brains work. But what would a city look like that could truly think and act?  What if it could be fully aware of all of its citizens experiences; able to remember and create; and then to act and learn?

This might once have been a fantasy. But it is coming closer. Cities can see in new ways – with citizen generated data on everything from the prevalence of floods to the quality of food in restaurants. Cities can create in new ways, through open challenges that mobilise public creativity. And they can decide in new ways, as cities like Madrid and Barcelona have done with online platforms that let citizens propose policies and then deliberate. Some of this is helped by technology. Our mobile phones collect data on a vast scale, and that’s now matched by sensors and the smart chips in our cars, buildings and trains. But the best examples combine machine intelligence with human intelligence: this is the promise of collective intelligence, and it has obvious relevance to a city like Seoul with millions of smart citizens, fantastic infrastructures and very capable institutions, from government to universities, NGOs to business.

Over the last few years, many experiments have shown how thousands of people can collaborate online analysing data or solving problems, and there’s been an explosion of new technologies to sense, analyse and predict. We can see some of the results in things like Wikipedia; the spread of citizen science in which millions of people help to spot new stars in the galaxy. There are new business models like Duolingo which mobilises volunteers to improve its service providing language teaching, and collective intelligence examples in health, where patients band together to design new technologies or share data. 

I’m interested in how we can use these new kinds of collective intelligence to solve problems like climate change or disease, and am convinced that every organisation and every city can work more successfully if it taps into a bigger mind – mobilising more brains and computers to help it.  

Doing that requires careful design, curation and orchestration. It’s not enough just to mobilise the crowd. Crowds are all too capable of being foolish, prejudiced and malign. Nor it is enough just to hope that brilliant ideas will emerge naturally. Thought requires work – to observe, analyse, create, remember and judge and to avoid the many pitfalls of delusion and deliberate misinformation.

But the emerging field of collective intelligence now offers many ways for cities to organise themselves in new ways.

Take air quality as an example. A city using collective intelligence methods will bring together many different kinds of data to understand what’s happening to air, and the often complex patterns of particulates.  Some of this will come from its own sensors, and some data can be generated by citizens. Artificial intelligence tools can then be trained to predict how it may change, for example because of a shift in the weather. The next stage then is to mobilise citizens and experts to investigate the options to improve air quality looking in detail at which roads have the worst levels or which buildings are emitting the most, and what changes would have most impact. And finally cities can open up the process of learning, seeing what’s working and what’s not….(More)”.